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Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth movie review

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 5:02 PM GMT on June 19, 2006

Al Gore's global warming movie, "An Inconvenient Truth," aims to call attention to the dangers society faces from climate change, and suggests urgent actions that need to be taken immediately. It is based on a slide show on climate Gore has presented to audiences worldwide over 1000 times in the past 15 years, but it is not purely a documentary. Gore's movie is an advocacy piece that is part documentary, part biography, and part campaign ad. I'll discuss all three of these aspects below. In brief, Al Gore has the right idea--climate change is an urgent issue that requires immediate action, and his thoughtful movie is a welcome addition to the usual array of mindless Hollywood summer fare. However, the movie has flaws. The presentation of the science is good, but not great--I rate it B minus. The excessive details on Al Gore's life make the movie too long, and his insistence on using the movie as something of a campaign ad detracts from its message.

An Inconvenient Truth as a biography of Al Gore
The creators of the movie presumably thought that simply presenting Gore's slide show would be too dull, so they decided to give the movie some human interest by interweaving a biography of Al Gore's life. Al Gore has led an interesting life, but "interesting" and "Al Gore" are not words one can often put together. As my daughter noted in her movie review yesterday, Al Gore is boring, and the 20 minutes or so of biography presented in An Inconvenient Truth is too much for a movie that is 1 hour and 36 minutes long. For example, I didn't really need to see the road where Al Gore totaled his car when he was 14 years old, or a replay of his loss in the 2000 election. On the other hand, some details of his past were interesting and relevant, such as the fact that he took college courses in the late 1960s from Harvard's Dr. Roger Revelle. Revelle and Dr. Charles Keeling were the pioneers in measurements of atmospheric CO2, and thus Gore got a very early exposure to the now infamous "Keeling Curve" (Figure 1), showing the build-up of atmospheric CO2. This early exposure to the significant impact humans were having on the atmosphere deeply affected Gore, and in the movie he details efforts he made to call attention to the issue long before most people had heard of it, back in the 1970s and 80s. Gore's slide show appropriately displays many graphs of the Keeling Curve, as it is probably the most important and most famous finding in climate change science.

Figure 1. The Keeling Curve is a record of CO2 measurements taken at he top of Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii since 1958.

The science of An Inconvenient Truth
The science presented is mostly good, and at times compelling, but there are a few errors and one major distortion of the truth. Gore does an excellent job focusing on the most important issues, and usually presents them with a minimum of hype and distortion. The only exception to this comes in his treatment of global warming and extreme weather events such as hurricanes.

Basic global warming science
Gore begins the science part of his talk with a very easy to understand presentation on the basics of how the greenhouse effect works. His speech is clear, the graphics top notch, and he spices it up with a hilarious two-minute cartoon depicting roughneck global warming gases preventing poor Mr. Sunbeam from escaping Earth's atmosphere. Gore addresses the argument of skeptics who claim that the Earth is too big for humans to affect by showing Space Shuttle photos of how thin the atmosphere really is compared to the vast bulk of our planet. "The problem we now face is that this thin layer of atmosphere is being thickened by huge quantities of carbon dioxide," he asserts, which is not correct. The build-up of CO2 has virtually no effect on the density or thickness of Earth's atmosphere. The correct thing to say would have been, "The problem we now face is that this thin layer of atmosphere is being made more opaque to the transmission of infrared radiation (heat) by huge quantities of carbon dioxide."

Gore shows an impressive series of "then and now" images documenting the widespread retreat of many glaciers over the past century. Most dramatically, he shows Tanzania's Mt. Kilimanjaro, whose 11,000 year-old glaciers are almost gone. While not all the world's glaciers have retreated in the past century, Gore's presentation is an effective and reasonable way to show how global warming has affected the majority of the world's glaciers. Greenhouse skeptics, including Michael Crichton in his State of Fear book, are fond of bashing those who use Mt. Kilimanjaro as a poster child for demonstrating global warming. They cite scientific research showing that the glacial retreat on Mt. Kilimanjaro is due to drying of the atmosphere, not global warming. However, as discussed at great length in a realclimate.org post, the research which supposedly supports the skeptics' claims has been widely misquoted and misinterpreted, and much of Kilimanjaro's melting can indeed be ascribed to warming of the atmosphere since 1960.

Gore does an excellent job discussing the ice caps of Greenland and Antarctica. Again, Gore's graphics are superb, and he does a nice job narrating. He shows animations of what a 20-foot rise in sea level would do to Manhattan, Florida, India, and China. A 20-foot sea level rise is what we expect if all of Greenland or all of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet were to melt. Such a 20-foot rise is not expected by 2100, and it would have been appropriate for Gore to acknowledge that the consensus of climate scientists--as published in the most recent report by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)--is that sea level is likely to rise between 4 and 35 inches, with a central value of 19 inches, by 2100. He should have also mentioned that temperatures in Greenland in the 1930s were about as warm as today's temperatures, so the current melting of Greenland's glaciers does have historical precedent. Nevertheless, the risk of a catastrophic melting and break-up of the Greenland or West Antarctic ice sheets is very real, when we consider that sea level before the most recent ice age was 15 feet higher than it is now. Gore is right to draw attention to what might happen if sea level rose 20 feet.

Drought and heat waves
An excellent discussion of the most serious climate change issue our generation is likely to face, the threat of increased drought and reduced water supplies, is presented. Gore makes reference to the extreme heat wave that affected Europe during the summer of 2004, and I was glad to see that he didn't blame the heat wave on global warming--he merely said that more events of this nature will be likely in the future.

Hurricanes and severe weather
The biggest failure in the movie's presentation of science comes in the discussion hurricanes and severe weather events. The devastation wrought by Katrina is used to very dramatic effect to warn of the dangers climate change presents. We are told that Katrina grew "stronger and stronger and stronger" as it passed over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico that were heated up by global warming. We are told that global warming is increasing the intensity of hurricanes, but not provided information on the great amount of uncertainty and vigorous scientific debate on this issue. Graphs showing recent record insurance losses from natural disasters are presented, but no mention is made of how increasing population and insistence on building in vulnerable areas are the predominant factors causing recent high insurance claims from disasters such as Katrina. Gore points to some unprecedented events in 2004 as evidence of increasing severe weather events worldwide--the record 10 typhoons in Japan, the most tornadoes ever in the U.S., and the appearance of Brazil's first hurricane ever. However, examples of this kind are meaningless. No single weather event, or unconnected series of severe weather events such as Gore presents, are indicative of climate change. In particular, the IPCC has not found any evidence that climate change has increased tornado frequency, or is likely to. Gore doesn't mention the unusually quiet tornado season of 2005, when for the first time ever, no tornadoes were reported in Oklahoma in the month of May.

Other science
Gore presents many other important aspects of climate change, including the threat of abrupt climate change leading to a shut-off of the Gulf Stream current, the increase in damaging insect infestations and tropical diseases, loss of coral reefs, loss of ice in the polar ice cap, and melting of permafrost in the Arctic. With the possible exception of his treatment of the spread of tropical diseases, all of these issues were presented with sound science.

An Inconvenient Truth as a campaign ad
Gore has repeatedly said that he has no intention of running for president again, and that this movie was created as part of his life-long passion to protect the environment. Gore undoubtedly does care very deeply about the planet, but this movie very much looks like a campaign ad. We are shown many scenes of Gore being applauded, Gore traveling the globe to present his slide show, and Gore working to uncover evidence of Republican shenanigans to alter or suppress climate change science. Gore is portrayed as a humble and tireless crusader for good, and if the movie is not intended to promote his political ambitions, it is certainly intended to benefit the Democratic Party. All this gets in the way of the movie's central message.

At the end of the movie, we are presented with the same image that Gore started the movie with, that of a beautiful river in the wilderness. Throughout the movie, Gore emphasizes how beautiful and special our planet is, and he does an effective job conveying this. He also makes a powerful case that something can and should be done to protect the planet, and it is worth hearing his message, even if the science is flawed and the messenger does get in the way of the message. Overall, the movie rates 2.5 stars--worth seeing, but you might want to wait until the DVD comes out.

At the end of the movie, Gore presents some tips on how everyone can contribute, and points people to his web site, www.climatecrisis.net. However, I would recommend that people who want to get educated about climate change get their information from web sites not associated with a politician; perhaps the least politicized source of information is the latest scientific summary of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change(IPCC), a group of over 2000 scientists from 100 countries working under a mandate from the United Nations in the largest peer-reviewed scientific collaboration in history.

Jeff Masters

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.

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328. rwdobson
4:44 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
F5, wouldn't the bias in temperature measurements be a consistent bias...which does not affect the conclusion that temperature is increasing? To invalidate the notion of an increase in temperature, you'd have to show that the bias in the temperature measurements has increased over the last few decades.
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327. F5
4:23 PM GMT on June 20, 2006

First off, it matters very little whether "global" warming has occurred or not. The average ambient increase in global surface temperature is extremely small as it has been recorded so far. Of greater importance are the regional effects of first order climate forcings. For example, if temperatures rose in the polar regions 5 degrees and caused a significant melting of the polar ice caps and a corresponding rise in sea level, but temperatures decreased by .5 degree across the US, which one would be more significant. Thus, the entire debate about "global warming" completely focuses on the wrong aspects. The entire debate should be focused on climate change, and then from a regional perspective, not from a global view.

This study doesn't say that warming hasn't occurred. It's sole purpose is the discussion and resolution of potential bias. However, it may be true, if the study holds, that global ambient surface temperature has not increased, and that the "models" showing large scale temperature increases based on CO2 forcing are not accurate. They aren't likely accurate for a number of reasons, which I have spoken to in the past.

I'm sorry you view peer reviewed science that doesn't fit into your accepted viewpoint as a distraction. Isn't that the purpose of science? To discover...to challenge...to test? After all, the policies that may follow such research are important to all of us.

Of course, we are also left with the historical record, that shows that all the things you have mentioned have happened throughout the history of the planet, without the CO2 emissions of humans entering the atmosphere. The climate will continue to vary over time just as it has always done.

I refer to you several other research articles on the site which also discuss the complexity of glacial retreat and advance and Artic tree line and the polar front.


You may disagree with their conclusions but they are hardly a distraction and merit serious discussion. Anything less would be a disservice to science and humans.
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326. ihave27windows
4:36 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
Thanks for the response SJ.

I guess I'm a little paranoid. Seems as if something like that would happen when we are thoroughly saturated.
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325. rwdobson
4:35 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
this blog is, for today, about global warming, so it's perfectly on topic.

jeff b, i was able to get to a pdf of (what i think was)the paper at issue. i followed a link from one of the blog comments.
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324. Wombats
4:36 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
yes it looks inland looks like it will stay over land. And by the way I like the site SJ nothing wrong with a little promotion gotta get the name out somehow..
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322. jeffB
4:24 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
F5 wrote:

There's a great new posting on the CSU Climate science blog by Dr. Roger Pielke regarding bias in air surface temperatures at poorly located sites. There is a link to a peer-reviewed paper on the subject, which is worth reading. I have stated in the past that IMO, temperature readings utilized to provide "evidence" of global warming may be misleading. This paper also indicates that there may be issues with these readings as well as ways to adjust for them.

Hey, everybody, another isolated shred of evidence against global warning! ;-)

Seriously, thanks for the link. It's a shame the original paper is subscription-only. I don't understand at all how they're claiming that these problems could lead to a false long-term warming signal -- it seems like they'd lead to constant offsets, or at worst diurnally and seasonally cyclic ones. F5, can you clarify this?
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321. StormJunkie
4:30 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
Wombat as much as I agree GW is here until the Doc updates the blog. Suprised he has not commented on the TX low as of yet.

I don't think it is 27. It may look that way because of where all the convection is, but I think the actual circulation is pretty well inland.

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320. PBG00
4:29 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
I remember when people came here to talk about the weather...track a storm ect..what happened?
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319. ihave27windows
4:26 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
I live in Houston, and I have been watching the radar, trying to keep track of the low we just experienced. Is it just me, or does it look like the low might be tracking into the Gulf of Mexico.

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318. Wombats
4:27 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
True stop with the bashing and global warming posts..
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317. Noise
4:21 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
For anyone interested... The cartoon used in 'An Inconvient Truth' to demonstrate global warming was created by Matt Groening's Futurama (4th Season). They did a wonderful episode on Global warming (incredibly subtle humor at times) which this cartoon peice comes from (Al Gore does have a voice appearance as himself, 1000 years in the future).
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316. cajunkid
11:22 AM CDT on June 20, 2006
Yo! SJ... Yea, I need to do some work too. This is like crack in a keyboard. Must stop blogging have to work.
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315. StormJunkie
4:19 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
Afternoon Cajun.

Back to work for me. Will check back in a while.

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314. cajunkid
11:09 AM CDT on June 20, 2006
That little blob near Panama looks more organized than it ever did now. I'm more concerned with the Bahamas though. Oh, please stop bashing. I love this site, but when that crap starts, it stops people from posting. Be competitive not hateful please.
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313. snowboy
4:12 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
Excerpt from NHC's EPAC 10:05 UTC tropical weather discussion


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312. StormJunkie
4:15 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
Very interesting HSS.

No sweat PB, most of us are here to help each other learn.

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310. Wombats
4:13 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
I just wish it would stop raining in Houston.
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309. sayhuh
10:00 AM CST on June 20, 2006
MichaelSTL...I hope we get the rain we so deserve!
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308. PBG00
4:05 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
Thanks SJ
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307. rwdobson
4:02 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
I think the EPAC system will be designated as a TD soon. For some reason, though, people never get all that fired up about the EPAC systems...probably because they do tend to drift out to sea and dissipate.
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306. StormJunkie
4:00 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
Track is basically just a geuss until something actually forms Pb, and even then it can be dicey as we all know. The Bahamas will be an area to watch for development over the next several days as conditions improve.

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304. StormJunkie
3:59 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
I think some of the haters work for Accuweather. lol:)
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303. PBG00
3:50 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
WH I was referring to the cmc model spinning up a wave in a few days
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302. snowboy
3:47 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
That's a pretty little system in the east Pacific south of California - I wouldn't be surprised if it makes tropical depression later today. My kind of storm, moving AWAY from land thus we can admire the forces of nature without worrying about possible death/destruction ..
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299. WhatHurricane
3:37 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
PBGOO... Doesn't it look like the wave is moving away from land? WV
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298. PBG00
3:35 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
just caught up..so what does the wave going toward Florida mean for S Fla..what are the chances of it actually being something other than a wave?
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297. snowboy
3:21 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
F5, c'mon are you going to try to advance the argument that the planet overall isn't warmer now than it was 40 years ago? Because that what your casting doubt on temperature readings sure sounds like.

Why not just open your eyes and look at what we are actually SEEING from around the world:
- increased duration of frost free growing seasons;
- treelines advancing northwards across the Arctic and upwards in mountain areas;
- the melting Arctic sea ice;
- the retreat of virtually all of the planet's mountain glaciers;
- shorter warmer winters and longer hotter summers;
- etc, etc..

The evidence that the globe is warming is there (it's all around us), and no amount of distraction (eg. challenging protocols for temperature measurements) is going to make it disappear..

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295. WhatHurricane
3:23 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
Eh, WSI... I prefer it when the jerks are put back in their place. If you ignore them they just come back for more.
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294. desertdisaster
3:18 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
Until Beryl... here are Some Numbers

One billion two hundred million people living in 110 countries among the poorest in the world are threatened by the spreading of the desert, a planetary plague to which the United Nations is devoting the year 2006. The phenomenon affects directly more than 250 million people, this was underlined at an international conference on "the future of the arid grounds" this week in Tunis by the UNESCO.
Sixty million of them will be forced to give up the desert zones of sub-Saharan Africa to gain the north of the continent and Europe from now to 2020 or they will die, according to the forecasts and statistical studies' of the United Nations.

A third of the world population lives on arid grounds, which constitute approximately 41% of the surface of the sphere. Ten to twenty percent of these grounds are degraded or unproductive.
In Africa, where the population survives primarily from to the resources of the ground, the arid grounds covers two thirds of the continent and in 2025, two thirds of those arable lands will have disappeared.
The quarter of the Latin America and the Caribbean and more of the third of the United States are desert or arid. The plague strikes all the continents since southernmost Europe (southern of Spain, Italy and Portugal) are desertifing themselves. In Latin America, as in Asia, the arable lands will decrease by a third from now to about fifteen years.

Concerning water, in 19 countries of Africa and Asia, the quantity of water available, will be reduced by half by 2025. The agricultural losses are estimated at 42 billion dollars annually.

We will skip all the Species in danger

These are numbers from the U.N. not Al Gore!

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293. StormJunkie
3:21 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
Thanks ya'll:)

Back to work before I get fired for playing on the internet. lol.

See ya this afternoon.
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292. WSI
3:21 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
Might I remind people that if you find a post to be obscene, you can mark it as such. It has a way of going away if enough people mark it. Just a suggestion, LOL!
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291. WhatHurricane
3:21 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
Good site SJ. =D
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290. WSI
3:20 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
Thanks Otowngirl. I am glad some appreciate the work and see it as beneficial, LOL!

I am purposely ignoring the bait from another poster.
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288. WhatHurricane
3:11 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
53rd... It is no crime to be enthusiastic enough about weather to build a site, when the effort is to benefit other people. And there is no need for any insults. You should go put up a site and have the dedication to maintain it and update it... I'm sure SJ takes pride in his work and he shouldn't be bashed for it.

Cool it. kay?
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287. F5
3:13 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
There's a great new posting on the CSU Climate science blog by Dr. Roger Pielke regarding bias in air surface temperatures at poorly located sites. There is a link to a peer-reviewed paper on the subject, which is worth reading. I have stated in the past that IMO, temperature readings utilized to provide "evidence" of global warming may be misleading. This paper also indicates that there may be issues with these readings as well as ways to adjust for them.

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286. rwdobson
3:15 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
StL, I guess that with the 2-day forecast, they are not confident enough in specific areas to break out a "high risk"...I bet some of that area will be called high risk tomorrow.
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285. Otowngirl
3:09 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
WSI - Great website! Thanks.
StormJunkie - Also thanks for your link - great as well!
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284. StormJunkie
3:09 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
What is your problem 53rd?

Get a grip.

Take your attitude elsewhere or display it for some one that cares. I am not here just to promote my site. As for what happens with it we will see, and I have no intention of it ever replacing the great resource that we have in the Wunderground. That being said. Layoff.

Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
283. snowboy
2:48 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
hey sleepy I salute your open-minded interest in the issue- you have the right idea in your post. Increasing CO2 levels will lead to significant warming, but there is a significant lag between the increase in CO2 levels and the resulting warming due to the inertia of a system as massive as the earth. We are just starting to see significant warming now, even though CO2 levels have been rising for 100 years. The problem is, that the same inertia applies when CO2 levels stop rising. So even if we really get our act together and manage to at least stop CO2 levels from rising further, global temperatures will continue to rise in a delayed response to the CO2 already up there. Put another way, we are already committed to a significant further rise in planetary temperatures due to our past CO2 emissions..

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282. WhatHurricane
3:10 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
Hey, guys... Is it normal for the pacific to cool down this time of year? Could la Nina return?
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280. IKE
10:05 AM CDT on June 20, 2006
The latest NAM model 12 UTC has that system in the Bahamas moving west and places it east of Florida in 84 hours as a closed low and is a little more aggressive with it compared to the last run. Maybe the conditions aren't favorable now and will become so in a couple of days.

Sure looks like something worth watching on the visible loop. Definitely a couple of spins there.
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279. rwdobson
3:05 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
Organized? I guess it's organized, in that all of the convection is to the north and east of the center. This thing is a long way from being a tropical cyclone.
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278. NAtlanticCyclone
3:01 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
This system near the Bahamas can very well become Beryl in the upcoming days. I haven't seen anything this well organized since that wave that came off of the African coast a week ago. This will probably develop somewhere off the FLorida's East Coast and go into the Gulf of Mexico due to the Bermuda High's current status and strength. Just my opinion. I will update on the current severe thunderstorm threat later today.
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